The have been 165 NHL players to have their jerseys retired. That number will reach 166 tonight, when Chris Neil gets lifted to the Sens’ rafters, and 167 next week when Patrick Marleau is honoured by the Sharks. Of those, Neil stands out in one specific category: penalty minutes. His 2522 PIMs in 1026 games (all with the Sens) dominates those you may expect to compete: Dustin Brown had 738 in 1296 game, Shane Doan had 1353 in 1540, Gordie Howe had 1685 in 1767 (and 2084 in 2358 if you count the WHA.; “Rocket” Richard had 1285 in 978. In fact, the only one I could find who beat Neil in this category was Scott Stevens, who had 2785 PIMs, but these came over 1635 games — 609 more than Neiler. Scott Stevens was a top-flight defenceman who also played on the edge. By contrast, Neil was, at the pinnacle of his career, a third-line grinder, but one who was good enough at what he did to do it for more than 1000 games for a single franchise.
Having only played for one franchise thing is the other thing that sets him apart. Neil currently sits 20th on the career PIMs list (and with the drop-off in fighting, may never be surpassed — the active leader is 37-year-old Corey Perry with a paltry 1341). Of the 19 players ahead of him, none of them spent their careers with a single team. The next closest is Bob Probert, who spent nine seasons with the Red Wings and seven with the Blackhawks, the only one to play with just two franchises. Enforcer/grinder/energy types tend to move around. Neil carved out a niche for himself in Ottawa. It’s not like there weren’t other guys like him — he played alongside the likes of André Roy, Shane Hnidy, Rob Ray, Brian McGrattan, Jarkko Ruutu, Matt Carkner, Matt Kassian, Zenon Konopka, and Mark Borowiecki. But while all those guys came and went, Neil remained. It’s a legacy unlike any in the NHL, and with the way the game as evolved, it’s on that I don’t think will ever be mirrored.
Neil was a 6th-round pick, 161st overall, in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft. He’d played two pre-draft years for the North Bay Centennials, including almost hitting a point-per-game that season at 55 points in 59 games. After being drafted, he returned to the OHL and posted 72 points in 66 games. Also of note was that even in those days, he was putting up 200+ PIMs per season. Hockey Fights lists him with 41 fights in the OHL, so the Sens knew what they were getting into with him. Based on the lack of pre-draft profiles on the internet, it’s safe to say he was drafted to score occasionally and fight regularly — a role in which he more than succeeded. In its re-draft of 1998, NHL.com had Chris Neil ranked 23rd, a fitting tribute to how much his stock rose from forgotten underdog to long-term NHLer. (In a funny twist of fate, the top player was Pavel Datsyuk, who was picked 10 spots after Neil in 1998.)
Looking back on Neil’s career, there are a few standout moments. The first one most people probably think of is Game 3 of the 2007 Stanley Cup Finals. With the Sens down 2-0 in the best-of-seven series, they came home, only to give up the opening goal to the Ducks just five minutes into the first period. You could feel the hope draining out of the building. And then, Neil opened the scoring for the Sens, the day after becoming a father. The place erupted. Hope was restored. The Sens went on to win that game.
Never mind that the Sens would go on to lose the next two games and the series, that game was iconic. We can also surely remember the 2012 playoff series against the Rangers, when in Game 1 the Rags were taking liberties with Ottawa’s young star defenceman Erik Karlsson. In Game 2, the Sens fought back, with Matt Carkner and Neil making their presences known. Carkner got himself and Brandon Dubinsky kicked out, while Neil went after Boyle:
And then when the game went to overtime, who scored the game-winner? That’s right, big Neiler with the huge rebound goal to tie up the series.
It was easy to cheer for the guy. He gave the impression of the everyman, a hockey player from Flesherton, ON — a village of 500 — who used hard work to stick in the NHL. Obviously, it’s not true that he was just like the average fan. He was a good scorer in the OHL, and even put up 250 points in the NHL, with a career high of 16 goals and 33 points in 2005-06. You need skill to even score 30 points in one season in the NHL. But he gave off the impression of a guy who gave it everything every shift, and that was endearing to many.
It meant that even those who were his biggest detractors, who were the biggest cynics about the Sens putting him in for a couple minutes against the Rangers in 2017 to ‘turn the tide of the series’, were still happy to see the team win for him. He really only played one shift of note that series, but was it ever memorable.
That video does give you some of the up-and-down you got with Neil. The Sens would’ve had a powerplay, but to put Glass in his place, Neil cancelled it out. That being said, every single Senator would tell you that they wanted to see Glass put in his place, and that gave them the energy they needed to win the game. Neil was the guy taking out the bully who made everyone else feel safer and more energized. That sounds to me like a difference-maker. I argued Neil didn’t have much impact then, but if it gave a mental boost to the whole team; I was probably wrong.
Of course, the 2017 playoffs wasn’t the only time he took a penalty at an inopportune time. Game 4 against the Penguins in 2010, he scored to cut the Pens’ lead to 4-1 and immediately shoved down Kris Letang to put the Sens on the penalty kill, killing any momentum there might’ve been to come back in the game. It became a bit of a joke on these parts to say #Neilership when Chris Neil would take a dumb penalty when he wore the assistant captain’s A. But even then, looking back, he was getting the team fired up. And he never crossed the line; never once was he suspended.
Neil also seemed to figure out what very few NHLers do, which is that hockey is primarily entertainment. Without fans enjoying the games, there’s no business, there’s no money. Neil had the ability to make any moment in any game memorable. He would throw a hit or goad someone into a fight or just be a general pest and make a game exciting. He’d raise his arms to pump up the crowd like it was WWE, and fans would go nuts. There’s a reason that you can find all sorts of tribute montages on YouTube. There’s a reason there’s been a biography written about him. There’s a reason Shane Prince dressed up as a young Neil for Halloween. There’s a reason he got more than one mention on the Bonk’s Mullet Sens rink breakdown. There’s a reason his Oil Changers ads are an enduring memory. There’s a reason the phrases ‘Chris Neil debate society’ and ‘Two minutes for being Chris Neil’ became a regular part of Dean Brown’s commentary.
I’d argue those are the reasons he’s getting his jersey retired tonight. Some will point out that no team retires their grinders’ numbers. I’d point out that no team has had a grinder with the longevity of Neil. There’s never been a player like him. He made the city his home, and his involvement with the community has gone long beyond his playing days. It meant the world to him to find out they were retiring his jersey, and even his biggest detractors must admit it was heartwarming to see him get that surprise news.
His career has been enduringly unique, which is a very fitting metaphor for the Sens. It’s a different experience, being a fan of the Sens, sandwiched between the two biggest, oldest hockey markets. It’s easy to be an afterthought, mocked, put down, and yet the Sens have persevered through struggles to still be a an NHL team in Ottawa, Ontario after 30 years. In that way, his perseverance embodies the spirit of the Senators, and it seems very appropriate to see his jersey raised to the rafters tonight.